Jess Glynne at the Brit Awards – feminist activism or just performance?

Was Jess Glynne’s makeup removal at the Brits Awards feminist activism or just performance? Savannah Coombe reflects on Glynne’s actions. 

Perhaps one of the stand out features from this year’s Brit Awards was Jess Glynne’s performance of her hit song “Thursday”. The song has been branded feminist with lyrics such as “I won’t wear makeup on Thursday, I’m sick of covering up” and “I was always taught to just be myself, don’t change for anyone”.

This is not the first time for a celebrity to pass comment on the use of makeup. In 2016, during the press tour for her album “Here”, Alicia Keys announced she would be going makeup-free for the foreseeable future. All of the album photography and her subsequent red carpet appearances featured her dressed-down and bare-faced. Keys has been vocal about the fact that she is not “anti-makeup” but rather highlights (pun intended) one’s right to choose.

While the general message behind Glynne’s Brits performance was similar, there were some clear differences. The performance featured Glynne sitting centre-stage surrounded by a group of around 30 women. All of whom faced a bright light which echoed the look of sitting in front of a mirror. As Glynne began to sing, the screen behind them showed her face and we witnessed her slowly begin to remove her makeup. This action was mimicked by the other women; the symbolism of their movements carefully weighed and measured. Eventually, all the women stood up, and Glynne (who is joined halfway through the performance by two-time Grammy award winner H.E.R) ended the performance silhouetted by the bare faces of hundreds of women on the screen behind her. It was, without doubt, a moving performance.

However, the issue with Glynne’s performance is that it does not account for the caveat that Keys is quick to point out. Makeup is not an issue in this scenario. Makeup is rather just one tool of a system that oppresses and divides. Makeup, or rather who has the right to wear makeup, helps to enforce the expectation of who ought to manicure their appearance. Anyone should have the right to not “wear makeup on Thursday”, but conversely everyone should be able to wear makeup whenever they wish. Makeup should be used as a tool of empowerment. As Keys said during a 2016 Grammy’s press conference, “It doesn’t have anything to do with makeup or no makeup. It has to do with who are you, what makes you feel good, how do you want to express that and even just asking the questions – What do I feel? How do I feel good? However that is, you should do it”.

Jess Glynne Illustration

All this is not to completely discredit Glynne’s performance and intention. It is a socially-conscious and positive form of feminist media. It is wonderful that she chooses to use her platform to empower and inspire. There is no question that there are people in the world who feel constrained by makeup, as if they are ashamed to be in public without it, and in light of this it is important to promote pride and self-confidence in natural beauty. However, we are entering an age where we also need to acknowledge that this (often mainstream) discourse is not the only narrative out there. In the same manner, the body positivity movement has been said to exclude the experience of those who are shamed for being “too skinny”, we must also consider those who have not had the same access to makeup, specifically women within the trans and femme communities. Wearing makeup is a highly empowering experience for people of these and other identities and is often seen as an act of reclaiming one’s identity. The bottom line here is that no one should be pressured into wearing makeup or feel like once a decision has been made they have to be consistent in sticking to it. Wearing makeup is a personal choice that should be based on how it makes you feel and not how it makes you look.

Glynne’s performance also raises the question of whether these celebrity statements are just for the sake of performance and media attention, or if there is actually political and activist intention behind them. A similar question was raised after the Gillette razor “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” advert was released in January this year. Should we be congratulating companies for hopping on the “woke” train to promote their products? Similarly, should we be praising celebrities for promoting messages that are (generally) already widely accepted in liberal communities? Given recent global political events, despite what we seem to be told by the social media echo-chamber, prejudice and hate are still widespread. Perhaps it is true that no matter the intention behind these campaigns, any promotion of a positive message is still useful in the grand scheme of things.

Ultimately, makeup is a powerful tool that everyone should have the right to use. If Jess Glynne feels empowered by not wearing makeup on a Thursday that’s fantastic. If you feel empowered by wearing 8 different colours of eyeshadow that’s fantastic too.

Artwork by Maegan Farrow. 

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